Tetsuya Kusu is a Japanese photographer, currently based in Japan. Formerly a commercial underwater photographer, he is now working solely on personal projects. His first major project is American Monuments, produced as he was drifting through America while working through a difficult personal issue. He has published a photobook of the same name and is currently exhibiting at Zen Foto Gallery in Roppongi, Tokyo, as an emerging photographer to watch out for. The exhibition will run until 25th June 2016
We’ve spoken briefly about American Monuments, your personal project after a difficult period in your life. What were the circumstances that led to the project and why is America significant in this work?
In reality, I wanted to go to America to do my photography as a way to get over my painful past and at the same time, to challenge myself. America was the ‘stage’ (or scene) because it was the place where my ex-wife and I drifted about. I had to return once more to the place where I spent those trying days. In other words, if I have to express it in an unkind way, it is the place where I can truly attempt to see how much of my work is free from my ex-wife’s influence.
You’ve called yourself a drifter. How were you living when you were doing this project?
My savings came from seasonal jobs I found during my travels. The nature of those jobs is a secret!
The work reminds me of Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces, in terms of being on the road in America, the vividness of the colours and the snapshot style.
People say my work has a snapshot style, but even though I use a small digital camera, I work as if I was using an 8×10. I work very carefully by staging the shot, making sure about lighting, the flare of the flash and the composition. For example, the photo on the cover of the book. I asked him to put the blanket around himself and to stand at a certain place.
I am familiar with American photography and the road trip culture. But besides Robert Frank, I don’t think there are many foreigners who have done a photographic road trip seriously.
As a Japanese man and a foreigner, how has that affected the way you view and portray America with your photographs?
I feel like I’m on the inside and on the outside at the same time. In Japan too I feel this way, and it helps with my work. There is a closeness but also a distance.
Do you think you could do the same road trip in Japan, and do a photography project? I think Daido Moriyama had gone on a road trip once before too.
Yes, there is a possibility for me to do the same road trip in Japan for my photography project. For me, movement or migration is an essential element to my work. In American Monuments in particular, in order to repeat movements, I created chance encounters with the subjects. Moreover, rather than the speed of walking, cars or motorcycles, the focus is on what kind of speed is required for the different means of movement.
Who are the people in the photographs?
Some are friends, some are strangers. I took a lot of photographs of people, some in business suits, some ordinary people. But when I was editing – I edited for a long time and I kept changing – I chose these people because I felt that they were the same as me.
What do you mean when you say that they are the same as you?
At that time I was the only person who had lost everything. I lived in a place that is removed from capitalist society and I was accepted by these people without prejudice. These folks shared similar layers as me and have a strong sense of empathy.
I read somewhere that you showed up at a festival in Krakow, Poland with your portfolio, and they gave you an exhibition at a fish and chips shop. How did you end up in Poland?
The visit to Poland was an accident. I had gone to Italy for the review of my portfolio which took place in Lodz. Unfortunately, the portfolio selection was unsuccessful and due to a mistake in my flight ticket, I ended up in Krakow. Since my portfolio took me to Krakow, I thought I shouldn’t leave without something to show for it. I started looking for an exhibition space via the internet and by walking around the city. Consequently, I found an exhibition space and was also able to show my work to the curator of the Krakow Museum of Contemporary Art.
You also have a series on Thailand called ‘In and Out’, which has a similar look and feel to American Monuments. When did you do that body of work?
タイを撮り始めたのはAmerican Monumentsを撮り終えた後です。私は６年ほどタイに住んでいた時期があり、第二の故郷のように思っています。コマーシャルフォトグラファーとして日本を拠点にし始めてからも、仕事で何度もタイに行っていました。コマーシャルの仕事を辞め、ホームレスの時代を経てAmerican Monumentsという真に自分と向き合った写真作品を製作し始めることで、いままで仕事でしか撮ったことの無い、そして良く知っているはずのタイという国が、今の私にとってのように見えるのかを写真に撮って確かめたいと思いました。
I started taking photos in Thailand after I completed the American Monuments project. I had lived in Thailand for six years and the place is like my second home. Even when I was a commercial photographer based in Japan, I travelled to Thailand for assignments many times. After I quit commercial photography, went through the homeless phase and did American Monuments, I wanted to look at the Thailand that I knew through the lens of the ‘current’ me.
What are your impressions of Thailand that you are trying to portray, after having lived and worked there for 6 years as a dive instructor?
My point of view had changed drastically since my homeless phase. Especially in 2013, when I didn’t do any photography. But not a single day went by where I did not think about photography during that significant period. Since I had reset my outlook, my impression of Thailand had changed greatly too. And I didn’t go to Thailand for four years during my homeless phase. Thailand’s economic situation has transformed and I was surprised by the changes.
The series Silent House is a series on homes or buildings abandoned in a flood. They look desolate, and to anthropomorphise it, they look sad. Can you tell us about that? Where were the shots taken?
Silent House was the work I did during my homeless phase at Lake Atitlán in Guatemala. Once in 30 years, the lake’s water level will rise due to heavy rain. The local inhabitants are aware of the fact and yet they still build their cabins by the lakeside and face hardships when their homes are submerged. Whether it is idiocy or comical human nature, it was deeply intriguing for me. I have often been in such predicaments and I will continue taking photos of these sinking homes.
How did you get into photography?
My first encounter with full-scale photography was through underwater photography. I was working as a dive instructor and I got acquainted with the method of expression for underwater photography. For me, underwater photography is about fulfilling my desire for showing off my talent and to seek recognition. In other words, the photo itself, or being able to take that photo or to seek the user’s praise are not necessarily important. The photographer’s objective is to fulfil his own desires and to be able to share that image with others. During the homeless phase, when I experienced a ‘flat’ state of mind and no longer worry about other people’s points of view, the medium of photography as a means of pure self-expression really prevailed.
You are, or shall we say, were a commercial photographer. Why did you give up that side of photography to pursue personal projects?
I am clumsy, and when I started doing commercial photography, the images tended to stick in my brain. Indeed, there was a possibility that it would ruin the ideas that are needed to produce my personal work.
What are you working on now?
I am now settled in Japan. With the support of my current wife, I continue my work as an artist. I do various types of jobs from day to day.
Translation by Mei Leong (meileong.com)
*this piece is a combination of two interviews, one in person at Kyotographie, the other by email.